The 10 Essential truths About Writing
Related to this is the fact that your own opinion doesn’t matter. To illustrate that point, here is the second truth about writing — writers will always find reasons to interject themselves into a topic and position themselves as example.
I’ve been a professional reporter and writer for 10 years now (it’s 2011). I have no real guess at how many items, bylined or not, that I’ve had published in newspapers and magazines. A low-ball estimate: 10 years x 50 weeks a year x 8 items a week = 4,000 pieces. It’s probably more than that. Most items are small — police blotters, tiny business briefs, glorified photo captions or events listings.
But I’ve written hundreds of real articles. And every one that I thought was shit turned out to be the most well-received. Which is your third truth. Sweat and strain to fit your thoughts into something readable and you will get to experience crushing indifference. But write like a monkey flinging poo and people say, ” I love monkeys!”
Your ego will try to convince you that regular people are not qualified to judge your work. But it’s a poor musician who blames his instrument and a poor showman who blames his venue. That’s the fourth truth — a writer will always find an external focus for his insecurities and failures.
But the fifth truth comes upon you quickly: The audience is your jury. Sure, I’m the one who went to school for this. I’m the one who studied craftsmanship. The one who read and re-read and imitated and experimented. I’m the one who gets a check for it. I’m the one whose colleagues honed their craftsmanship through similar experiences.
But you, the reader, are the boss. Bernie Kilgore, a legendary journalist and the father of my first newspaper publisher, once said something that I used to keep taped to my computer monitor (and would probably be wise to reattach): “The easiest thing for the reader to do is to quit reading.”
The writer’s ego is formidable. We all think that just because we printed it, everyone will read it. At best, almost everyone who reads your work will scan it. If they like what they see, then they’ll start over and read it, but usually not to the end. The sixth truth: The reader is lazy. That’s why he’s reading, one of the most physically inactive things you can do. It’s why you read on a plane or in a waiting room, rather than play squash.
So you have to accept the seventh truth of writing — you are doing all the work. You are not the spellbinding narrator you think you are. You’re a tour guide. Actually, you’re a Sherpa. You don’t just show American tourists around Mt. Everest, you drag them along to the peak, and you have to do it without them complaining about it. They’re not normal tourists, though — they have the ability to just cut out of the story and leave you stranded on the north face for eternity while they take a visit to the Jersey shore.
But the eighth truth of writing is something you might not expect: Readers want you to awe them. Unlike music or your neighbor’s TV, no one is exposed to your writing via someone else experiencing your writing. Your wife reading a book on the couch is (at least I hope) not narrating. The words aren’t scrolling across the walls. You’re not in the sewers with Harry Angel, looking for voodoo bad guys (seriously, read William Hjortsberg’s “Falling Angel,” it’s terrific and he’s a really nice guy). Past your wife’s field of vision, there is no spillover for your text.
That means that your wife is immersed in the book because she wants to be. You’re not peripherally exposed to the book, meaning you have to want to read it on your own; experience it in a private, personal way. Your readers want you to carry them to the top of Everest. Which leads me to truth number nine: Get the hell over yourself and get to work. Because the top of Everest is a long ways away.
Or, better stated, books don’t write themselves any more than police briefs do. So put your ass behind a keyboard and start typing. And remember the tenth truth about writing: You’ll never really know how people will respond to your work. Unless you’re sitting in their living rooms watching them read it.
And that’s just creepy.